Mariko Mori has been working as an artist based in New York since the 90’s. It is still fresh in people’s memory that her installation “Wave UFO” caused a sensation at the 51st Venice Biennale last year. Right now, her latest work “Tom Na H-iu” is open to the public in Japan. She has reached the stage of maturity as a contemporary artist and gained high recognitions internationally. COOL made a visit to her new atelier in Manhattan, which she just moved in pretty recently, and asked about her productions in New York and her views over the New York’s art scene which she had seen all her way.
Why did you decide to work in New York?
I move to London first, to go to art college. And then I came to New York to join the “Whitney Museums’s Independent Study Program” and was supposed to be here for a year. The reason why I decided to remain in New York after the program was the fact that New York is very liberal. People from different countries and different cultures live together and all of us are given opportunities equally.
What was New York like when you first came here?
I felt the city was very dangerous. But it was much more liberal than it is now. Many artists lived in Manhattan and hung out together, and there were meeting spots for them. Galleries were located in SOHO, not in Chelsea like now, and I could communicate with artists whenever I went to the openings.
There was more “local” atmosphere then and New York artists were like cooperating with each other. These days, that “local” atmosphere is felt less and less as artists have moved to Brooklyn and Queens and artists from overseas are holding exhibitions in the city.
But weren’t there many artists from other countries at that time?
Yes, but I think they had stronger senses of “I AM A NEW YORKER” than now. Of course, in a real sense, there are few “New Yorkers” who were actually born and grew up in New York, but the artists from those days seemed that they were keeping in mind that they were New Yorkers rather than where they were from.
How do you think New York’s art scene has changed from the past?
New York’s art scene wasn’t global before. Rather, it was just a New York’s own thing. But now, New York represents the world’s scene. Artists come in from outside countries and New York has changed its direction from being local to being global.
There was a gallery called “American Fine Arts” in SOHO before and the gallery was like a gateway to success for artists. Getting noticed at that gallery meant that you got recognized as a New York artist.
Since the art world began to appreciate artists with various cultures and genders, now it looks easier for both New York local artists and internationally artists to work.
What do you find attractive about New York?
When I first came to New York 14 years ago, I probably just got attracted to New York itself. New York supports arts at the totally different level. New York just gives artists unconditional supports. There are many people with that sort of passion. Art scene grows because artists are like the seeds in the field and those who support arts water them enough. In that sense, New York is a very good place for artists to grow up.
For me personally, New York is where I don’t feel the “magnetic field.” For example, when I am in Europe, I feel the strong magnetic field because European countries have cultures with long and deep histories. I also feel that I am someone who don’t belong to the society because I am an outsider.
Likewise, there exists the hardly-changing fine society with long history in Japan. I am also an outsider and I feel the heavy magnetic field as well in Japan. In other words, you are only able to have the identity that the societies will give you in those countries. In New York, people are allowed to have bigger permissible ranges as various people live and various cultures exist…I mean, I can imagine what kind of person I want to be and I can be free as much as I want to be.
What is the important thing to work as an artist in New York?
New York is good in terms of knowing what’s happening now. But things changes really fast here. Lots of things are happening in New York as trends change and many people come in and out. I think the hardest thing here is not to lose yourself. You always have to look at yourself and know what your identity is, what you want to achieve, or what your dream or desire is. Otherwise, you will just get caught up in New York and lose control of things around you. And the most important thing should be that you believe in yourself, no matter what you do or where you are. I think that’s universal.
Have you ever had any difficulties or inconveniences while working in New York?
Since things are especially fast-paced in New York, misunderstandings may come up if you don’t communicate well enough. When there is a problem, it always stems from a miscommunication or a lack of explanation. In Japanese society, people can understand each other without exchanges of words sometimes, but that’s not applicable here. So, it is important that you tell things like “This is what I want!” loud and clear. When I first came here, I often cried because I didn’t do that (Laughs).
For example, when I was making small pieces, I had to place orders at several factories because one factory couldn’t do it alone. And when I tried to put everything together into one piece, they didn’t fit together. In Japan, if I give the measurements to the factory, they make things according to them exactly. But here, they don’t do that. I should have explained to them with patterns of the actual size or something to avoid those mistakes.
Now that I am getting to know the capacities of people here and they know what I want, I don’t have any problems. But it was hard to organize a team with people who share the same sense of value towards work with me since people in New York have so many different backgrounds. It took such a long time to meet those people.
- What do you think is the difference of the perceptions towards contemporary art between Japan and America?
I am not familiar with the contemporary art scene in Japan so I can’t say anything for sure, but it seems that the environment where artists can grow up hasn’t quite established yet. First of all, to support arts, there should be not only galleries and museums but also people among general public who are actually art collectors, and there are those kinds of people in Europe. No matter how hard artists work, it is impossible for them to continue to do their own things if there aren’t people who understand, love, and collect their pieces with actual financial support. I guess such an environment, like where artists can grow up, has been established little by little but it is still underdeveloped.
Where do you get inspirations from?
I personally think that the future lies in the past. There are myriads of “dots” called time which is continuing from the past and they link together and become a “line.” I mark a dot, and then someone from the next generation mark another dot, and that continues on and on towards the future. In that sense, I think time is like “Moebius band.” Even though you have a problem now, the answer doesn’t necessarily exist now. Thus, instead of seeking for an answer in the present time, I go back to the past to learn about the future.
Last of all, can you tell us about your recent work and your solo exhibition which is running in Japan now ?
The title (of my recent work) is called “Tom Na H-iu,” which means something like “the place where the soul reincarnates before its metempsychosis” in ancient Celtic language. I have traveled across Japan for the research of Jomon remains since 2 years ago and I went to see “standing stones,” which were built in B.C.3000 just when Jomon remains was also built, in Scotland last year.
As I look at those prehistoric old-world remains, I felt the life-and-death issue of people of that era, in other words, I found their image towards death magnificent and cosmic. I was inspired to make “standing stones” of our own times.
“Tom Na H-iu” is a glass-made “standing stones,” inside of which the image of “light of death” is reflected. At the explosion of supernova, which means the ending stage of stars, the substance called “neutrino” are emitted, and I detected them at the facility “Kamioka Observatory, Institute for Cosmic Ray Reseach (Super Kamiokande)” in Japan and I used those detected data to express the image of “death of light,” which occurs when stars die in the space.
interview: Sei Koike
photo: Akiko Tohno
After she graduated from Chelsea College of Art in London, she moved to New York to join “Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program” and started her career there in 1993. She was awarded for her outstanding performance at Venice Biennale in 1997. She has held solo exhibitions at major museums like Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum, and Pompidou Center in Paris. She has also joined international exhibitions and group exhibitions all over the world and gained international reputation.